What! Porn in the office? Oh, never mind

A tech pro is charged with monitoring Web use at a family business, but gets an unexpected response when the worst offender is revealed

You can have your fancy Computer Science degree, your hands-on hardware expertise, and your mad coding skills. There's still one place where they'll barely make a difference: the family business, where rules are made to be broken and "company politics" takes on a whole new meaning. Good luck implementing any tech solution in that environment!

I learned this not long after finishing up my college career, when the World Wide Web was in its birthing stages. On campus, we used a type of local email, and with a 2,400-baud dial-up modem, one could connect to the mainframe from home, if a line was available, and communicate with other individuals linked in. We mostly used computers to write, enhance, or fix actual programs that accomplished a specific task.

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Once I graduated, I accepted a position at a large family operation where I wrote programs using Microsoft Access and SQL queries that extracted data from existing programs and produced reports to aid in sales and purchasing. I even wrote one to control the production on the manufacturing line and one for tracking fleet maintenance. We did real work on our PCs, but the world would soon discover these amazing tools could be put to many other uses.

With the arrival of AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, and EarthLink, as well as their offers of free hours of connected time, Web browsing became a new beast that had to be controlled. Our main office had two modem banks in the basement that dished out phone lines upon demand, but we were limited to 16 lines. This had been plenty when people were merely involved in work, but now with "free" email to be had, we noticed a spike in modem usage.

Following quickly on email's heels came online shopping and porn sites. Soon, the board was caught up in the dot-com boom and trading a lot of stocks, so a few of them were also reading tech journals -- not to gain computing expertise but to pick up "insider" info for their investments. The pot was boiling.

As a small cog in the IT department, I had been suspicious about dial-up usage. I'd been prompting my boss to be proactive on monitoring and putting policies on its use, since were seeing higher bills for minutes of online and workers were unable to access modem lines for longer periods of time. But he was unconcerned as it was a family-owned business and we had "fine employees." They were probably doing work.

When an article appeared in one of the tech journals making predictions about how many hours were wasted on Web surfing, I finally got the buy-in from my boss and the board to put policies in place for what was expected in the office environment. The CEO told the HR department to compose an addendum to the employee handbook, and we should run a check on the PCs to see if we had any violators who needed to be addressed.

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